bookmark_borderHedges vs. Hitchens

Apparently there was an atheism vs. God debate between Chris Hedges and Christopher Hitchens last week. Hedges took a liberal Christian view, while Hitchens took the crusading Islamophobic atheist position.

It doesn’t sound like it was all that illuminating, however. Perhaps it’s selective reporting that reduces participants to stereotypes. Nevertheless, in the story, Hedges and Hitchens both seem to represent classic forms of boneheadedness. Hedges comes across as woolly-headed liberal religionist who uses supernatural language but has difficulty extracting concrete claims from a soup of metaphors, metaphysics, and exalted feelings. Hitchens, on the other hand, appears in the role of professional asshole: a mirror image of a fundamentalist religious stereotype both in pugnacious attitude and dogmatic certainty.

I’ll take the easy way out and blame the mass media once again. As always, they’re interested in spectacle above all. So even if it may feel good at first to have some atheists rise to public prominence, it gives me pause to see that leading the pack are Sam Harris and now Christopher Hitchens, and that the media may like them precisely because they easily fit the image of sharp-tongued bigotry that atheism is supposed to display. Some in the nonbelieving choir may applaud the opportunity for public venting, but I suspect that overall the effect of Harris, Hitchens etc. on most religious people is comforting. They just reinforce the prejudice that nonbelief is a shallow, reactive stance, and that moderate religiosity remains unchallenged as the pinnacle of thoughtful respectability.

bookmark_borderClark Adams, RIP

I received the unfortunate news this morning that Clark Adams has died, and that he took his own life.

Clark was a long-time board member of the Internet Infidels (and for many years its public relations director) and a frequent speaker and attendee at atheist, freethought, humanist, and skeptical events. He was a jovial, funny man whose talks about atheism in popular culture were always crowd-pleasers. He was not particular about what label to put on his nonbelief, and was supportive of all groups that promoted rationality and critical thinking, including the “brights”–though he did not care for what he called “religion without the god stuff.”

There have been many touching tributes to Clark posted today, and I’m sure there will be many more to come:

All are agreed that Clark was an active atheist who was a great person to be around, who knew and was known by a vast number of people in atheist, freethought, humanist, and skeptical circles, and who will be missed.

bookmark_borderWhere does this confidence come from?

Some years ago I became interested in criticizing the latest mutation of creationism, intelligent design. In 2004, this culminated in the publication of Why Intelligent Design Fails, one of the leading books critical of ID, which I co-edited with Matt Young.

Lately I’ve eased off on ID, because I decided that I had said what I could about the subject. ID just wasn’t intellectually interesting anymore: having figured out exactly why ID fails, we could learn what we could from that and move on. And ID proponents have not come up with anything truly new in years; they seem to have settled into a pattern of reasserting the same stuff and patting each other in the back about how revolutionary they all are.

Still, I keep an eye on what’s going on in the ID area. Old interests don’t vanish overnight. And I admit I am curious about the sense of triumph many ID writers tend to project. William Dembski keeps announcing that it’s obvious to everyone but the dogmatic “Darwinists” that Darwinian evolution is, intellectually, a spent force. ID proponents still promote Dembski’s pathetic “Explanatory Filter” and “Complex Specified Information” as luminous breakthroughs that are the centerpiece of the effort to rigorously indentify an irreducible signature of intelligence. Michael Behe announces that ten years after Darwin’s Black Box, his critics have utterly failed to make headway with Darwinian explanations of molecular machinery in cells, and that he feels completely vindicated and more confident about ID than ever. And I just read Darwin Strikes Back, Thomas Woodward’s insider “history” of the ID movement’s recent doings, which transports the reader to a bizarre alternative universe where ID proponents are all pinnacles of intellectual virtue, where both theoretical developments and empirical data strongly undermine naturalistic, Darwinian “macroevolution,” and where mainstream scientists hold on to Darwinian ideas almost entirely because of an ideological commitment to philosophical materialism. From the perspective of someone entrenched in the scientific mainstream such as myself, there is hardly a paragraph in Woodward’s account of ID and its critics that is credible. And yet, he writes with the same overwhelming sense of confidence. He sincerely thinks that he’s in the middle of an exciting intellectual revolution, that ID should be victorious at any moment (it’s held back only by dogmatism and institutional inertia), and that the intellectual case for ID is all but wrapped up.

So, I can’t help but be curious: where does this confidence come from? Someone here is severely deluded: ID proponents or their critics within mainstream science. Now, I think I can recognize crappy work that’s not up to intellectual standards, and I’m pretty sure ID fits the description. I think there are some severe, likely fatal critiques of ID out there, and that most ID critics have done an honest (if often thankless) job rather than act under the influence of “metaphysical panic” as ID proponents would have it. The scientific community—which I think is by and large trustworthy, though not perfect— seems to be overwhelmingly against ID. Yet with all that, I’m damned if I can pump myself up to be so chirpily confident that I’m correct. It’d feel ridiculous. So again, what’s with the ID crowd?

bookmark_borderID proponent denied tenure

Guillermo Gonzalez, an astronomer at Iowa State University who is best known as an Intelligent Design proponent, has just been denied tenure. So far it seems unclear what role ID played in this denial, though it’s a real possibility since Gonzalez has been active and reasonably productive in mainstream astronomical research.

In the fall of 2005 I invited Gonzalez over to give a straight astronomy talk to my physics department and an ID talk for my interdisciplinary “Weird Science” class. Now, I’m not an astrophysicist and I can’t judge the quality of Gonzalez’s astronomy. But it seemed decent enough. I can judge ID claims, and there’s nothing in Gonzalez’s ID advocacy that I find impressive. But I figure academics should be able to have interests beyond what brings in immediate grant money. More importantly, they should be allowed to be wrong, even grossly wrong, in claims they make. The price of encouraging originality and free thinking is that you have to tolerate a certain amount of mistaken notions.

Whichever way this turns out, I suspect science is going to suffer for it. A tenured Gonzalez would likely have been an even more forceful ID figure in public. In an environment where ID has become much more of a nasty ideological movement than an intellectual minority view, that would not have been good either for Iowa State’s reputation or for the public understanding of science. But now, with Gonzalez case poised to become a conservative cause célèbre, mainstream science again loses out by being portrayed as a rigid orthodoxy. And if there is even some substance to such an allegation, there are deeper reasons to worry. More is bound to come out; perhaps Iowa State has legitimate concerns about the quality of Gonzalez’s mainstream astronomical research or other considerations that affect tenure. I just hope this was not about ID alone. If so, I’ll be inclined to think that the ID proponents have point here.

bookmark_borderSecularism vs. Democracy

Among those who care, it should be reasonably well-known by now that secularism is in deep trouble within the Muslim world. The Muslim experience with secularism has typically followed what I have called “military secularism,” where reforming constituencies such as military elites have pushed Westernization in order to force their societies to catch up to the advanced West. Typically this has involved suppression of religiously-inspired cultural reactions; military secularism has not given religious freedom high priority.

This does not get much notice in the US popular media, which as always seems devoted to commercialism and reflecting official propaganda. So as long as “moderates” in the Muslim world are faithful to Western commercial and military interests, they get labeled as democrats, modern people, progressives—regardless of whether they’re oppressing the locals. Hell, oppressing committed Muslims can even get you brownie points for defending civilization against fanaticism.

Unfortunately, news sources out of the mainstream are not always a great improvement. Especially if they have leftist sympathies; the political left has a long history of romanticizing the politics of the oppressed: the heroic Third World that can do no wrong, the noble “Other.” And so it is in matters of secularism and Islam. It’s not hard to find leftie writers expressing sympathy for Islamist movements, mainly because Islamists express the authentic resistance of peoples subjected to Western colonialism or neocolonialism. And indeed the Islamists express a culturally authentic resistance. There are no shortage of conservative Muslims whose moral opposition to secular Western culture are fired by a deep and authentic desire to keep their women under control by making them live in brown paper bags.

Here is a recent example of the genre: Dilip Hiro on antidemocratic impositions of secularism in Turkey. It’s an interesting example because much, perhaps even most of what it describes is unequivocally correct. The Turkish military has a history of intervening (explicitly or behind the scenes) in the democratic process to preserve a secular state. Turkish secularism has no deep support outside a relatively prosperous, small Westernized elite. Much larger numbers of people express their political and moral aspirations in doctrinally conservative Islamic colors—political Islam and various Islamic movements have a much better claim to reflect an authentic voice of ordinary people.

Nevertheless, it’s also weird to see so much in Hiro’s reporting that reads as if it were from a press release of the currently ruling Islamist party in Turkey. Especially when he gets things wrong in just the right way to make the Islamists look better. I mean, “drastically reduced corruption”? Less corrupt, perhaps, but even that is much debatable. Talking about any political party in Turkey being non-corrupt betrays ignorance of the local political culture and the systematic disincentives to any truly non-corrupt administration. Somehow, in the eyes of some leftists, not only are the Islamists authentic resisters of Western imperialist bastards, but also the saviors of the people. So we get strange occurrences like a left-leaning endorsing praise of a political party that represents nothing but a variety of neoliberal economics and a cultural politics that is comparable to the Religious Right in the US in most respects.

So, what is it? Do too many of the secular political left really oppose Republican-style ideology only in the US and other Western countries, while celebrating cultural and economic conservatism elsewhere? Is it some sort of (perhaps even principled) insistence that the democratic will of various peoples must triumph? But then, that would be to forget how right-wing populism is quite popular, has strong democratic credentials, and is deeply rooted in the non-elite culture in the US. If I were to pick a broad-based democratic, popular political movement that has been most prominent within the US in the last few decades, it would have to be the conservative Christian Right. If an alliance of corporate rapaciousness and religious authoritarianism is so disturbing close to home, and even more so because it has deep popular and working-class roots, surely roughly similar political movements in more distant countries should also be treated with some suspicion.

Secularism is dying in Turkey and in the Islamic world as a whole. It has failed to take root beyond elites; it continually has to resort to top-down impositions on strongly pious populations. So it is—perhaps there is no point in trying to stave off its collapse, even if it were desirable. Nevertheless, the Muslim experience should have something to teach Western secularists, and especially left-leaning secularists, beyond a mindless celebration of claims to cultural authenticity. The mature Enlightenment political tradition has never promoted a naive understanding of democracy as sheer majoritarianism or a reflection of the will of The People. In our current degraded form of political life where consumers get to choose between mildly different versions of pro-corporate parties after marketing campaigns pretending to be elections, maybe populism and authenticity look good. Still, at its best, the Enlightenment idea of democracy includes more than a nod to notions of public service, civic virtue, considered deliberation, and a negotiation of competing interests even with all the dirtiness and compromises that implies. Moreover, this notion of democracy takes a guarded stance toward claims of transcendent interests and God-given ways of life: educated democratic deliberation and negotiation is about secular aims and our collective thisworldly interests. We may be wrong; and revealed “truths” tend to be non-negotiable.

There is more. If we are to stand for secularism in the West (where it still may be defensible), we have to make an affirmative case for it—as a way of life, as a different framework to think of civic virtue than what is provided by cultural (usually religious) conservatism. This comes hard to those of us in the Anglo-American political tradition, with our fixation on negative liberties and conception of secular government as merely neutrality between sects, a way to keep the peace between rival transcendent claims to the Good. But if we can make an affirmative case for a secular way of life, perhaps our views on Islamist politics will also gain some coherence. We might be able to respect other cultural choices (not everyone has to live under a secular democracy; it’s legitimate to try and avoid living in a global shopping mall) and refrain from crudely imposing our political vision on everyone, while being clear that we know what we want for ourselves, and it is not any Religious Right way of life, no matter what the religion. To reject military secularism yet also to refrain from cheering on politics of authenticity. To admit that sometimes we live in different moral universes, and that the best we can hope for is to negotiate some way of living together.

bookmark_borderKarl Rove an Atheist?

I’m not sure what to make of this blog post over at TPM. Neoconservative writer Christopher Hitchens says that White House political advisor Karl Rove is an atheist. Hitchens (an atheist himself) told the New Yorker that Rove “is not a believer, and he doesn’t shout it from the rooftops, but when asked, he answers quite honestly.” I wonder if James Dobson ever asked? If not, he’ll be picking up the phone now. If true it explains a lot. I could never quite see Rove as a fellow religious warrior, arm-in-arm with George W. Bush against the “evildoers” and “killers” who threatened Christendom itself. He was too Machiavellian to believe the propaganda dished out for the healthy consumption of the useful idiots on the religious right. Which would mean, like Machiavelli before him, Rove might instead believe that religion should be in the service of the state. Or as Machiavelli put it, to use religion as a convenient cloak to fool the masses into supporting war.

Update: Atheist Revolution has more details on this story.

bookmark_borderJack Chick strikes again

Jack Chick just came out with a new tract, “Fairy Tales?”. (And there was much rejoicing. At least among those of us who consider Chick to be great entertainment.)

This one is fairly bizarre even by Chick standards. One of the morals of the story seems to be that you should not tell kids about Santa Claus, because when they inevitably find out that it’s a fairy tale, they will

  1. become violent sociopaths;
  2. renounce religion and risk their eternal soul.

Interestingly, Chick seems to present his precious Son of God as pretty much on the same level as Santa Claus as far as evidence is concerned. Both, after all, are characaters in stories people tell, but no more. Confusing.